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Monthly Archives: September 2004

“Review of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Theatre’s ‘Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger’ at American Dance Festival,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, September 2004

Bill T. Jones & Arnie Zane Dance Company "Reading, virtue and 'The Artificial Nigger'"

Bill T. Jones & Arnie Zane Dance Company “Reading, Mercy and ‘The Artificial Nigger'”


Set to live music with the cast costumed in business suits and ties, calling attention to the business of the piece, choreographer Bill T. Jones in the world premiere, July 18, of “Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger,” commissioned for the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, has once again used the medium of dance to make a social statement. The piece is based upon American writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Artificial Nigger.” The author’s use of a word that has such a painful resonance in this country is deliberately intended to shock and to sear, for the story demonstrates the subtle psychology if how bigotry is taught. Readers on stage recite aloud sections from the story, beginning with the first paragraph, which connects the universal message concerning the survival of racism with the cyclical rhythms of the moon.  What follows is a recitation of the names of products that take their appellations from icons of the American South: Dixie Chemical Company, Aunt Jemima Maple Syrup, and Southern Belle Cotton.  In the story, these brand names are the billboards two characters view from a train as they journey toward the city of Atlanta from the Georgia countryside. Like much else of Jones’s work, “The Artificial Nigger” is a multimedia production with a projected set and a text that at times so thoroughly dominates dancing, that to call this piece a dance, only, is to exaggerate the significance of a single medium in a work that is made up of movement, rhythm, poetry, film, mime, music, photography and theatre.  Dance is not always the central element.

Jones claims in the program notes that this choreography is not a visualization of the story, but in some senses it is – primarily in rhythmic ways, for literature, the spoken word, contains rhythms as surely as does dance, and the dancers move to them as much as they do to the music. And, as the characters experience, we see elements of their story: the train, a streetcar, pedestrians on the street, spigots and running water, hands, even the heat of the Atlanta summer. When the child stops and stares for sixty seconds, we get a sixty-second pause. Although no one dancer consistently portrays any of the main characters, we see them straggling along, one behind the other, the former the advancing shadow of the latter.

There is also psychological visualization.  For example, when expectation is reversed, the dancers stand upon their necks. When the character Mr. Head instructs his grandson in the qualities one can look for in Negroes, the dancers’ movements parody African-American rhythmic dancing, and we see, briefly, the jungle bunnies that populate Mr. Head’s ignorance. When he struggles for anonymity, the dancers cover their heads with their jackets, a visualization which also appears to be a pun upon the character’s name. Near the end of the story, when the characters confront the miserable-looking artificial Negro itself, a decayed lawn ornament, we, in one moment, see the misery in their ignorance, and their likeness, in it, to the image they have both created and despised. Finally, when Mr. Head denies his child – there seems to be some connection here with St. Peter’s denial of Christ – Flannery O’Connor was devoutly Roman Catholic – the dancers slip to the floor in despair. Indeed, both the music and the choreography are heavily text-tured. Above it all are the readers’ tonally faceted and emphatic voices, Southern, patrician, and didactic.

What Jones’ piece does, in addition to reviving an important O’Connor story for a new generation of audiences and readers is to show us how as human beings, guilty of the sins of all humankind, we are quietly accused.  Mr. Head, at the last, is revealed to himself as a sinner with no comprehension of his real and terrible sins, against African Americans, against humanity and against his grandson.

Several of the dancers delivered outstanding performances. Shaneeka Harrell distinguished herself early in the evening as first dancer in Jones’s 2002 work, “Power/Full,” which illustrates the isolation of the human spirit from religion and prayer. Again here, we have a text, though in this case it is simple and brief: “When God says something, He can’t take it back.” Another strong performance came from Malcolm Low, who has acquired command since I last had the opportunity to see him dance, two years ago.

Also performed this evening was “Duet X 2” (1982). Together the three pieces, all thematically complex, deeply ironic and emotionally involving works, comprised an important statement about the human condition.